Countries across Europe are slowly emerging from lockdown, but by the time they have fully moved on from social distancing measures, the 75th anniversary commemoration events related to the end of the rule of the Nazi Party and its large concentration camp system will have passed. Many events were designed to commemorate the particular history of a specific site. In today’s blog, I consider the significance of site to commemoration rituals to ask what we might learn from this year’s online-only provision in terms of how we might modify or augment future events with technology.
What is commemoration?
Whether we think of commemorative events at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, London – not a site of historical significance during the war – or at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial in Hamburg, place seems to be the most prominent factor. In both cases, hundreds of people will, under more usual circumstances, travel to either site. Yet, academic writing about commemoration would suggest physical place is not necessarily the defining feature of such events.
Jay Winter argues that ‘sites of memory materialize [the communal and moral] message’ of the commemoration (2010, 213). Yet, he recognises that such sites are transitional – they will not have memory value for eternity, and that to be meaningful to collective memory they must be deemed as possessing specific symbolic and aesthetic value. However, he is sceptical, as others before him have been, about whether one can think about the Holocaust in terms of such values (2010, 321).
- Is the attempt to materialise Holocaust memory into fixed concrete sites problematic?
- Might the meaninglessness of the loss of so many innocent lives be better captured in more fleeting, intangible ways?
Indeed, James Young’s (1993) extensive work on counter-monuments offers some alternatives. We might also think about how digital technologies can offer a flowing, dynamic, seemingly ‘living memory’ which emphasises its ability to continue in resistance and defiance against attempts to destroy Jewish life and culture, as well as avoiding a material permanence that seems to contrast the absence caused by the Holocaust.
Furthermore, Winter acknowledges the ‘top-down’ approach that sites of memory suggest and recommends this is supplemented by a ‘bottom-up approach’ that interacts with more formal elements of commemorative practice (2010, 319). Perhaps, the participatory, networked logic of Web 2.0 can further assist in such a democratising of memory.
Like Winter, Edward Casey (1987) identifies place as important to commemoration, yet describes ritual and text as its defining features. For Casey, Durkheim (1995), Cossu (2010) and others, commemorations are formalised communal performances that also involve expression through language. They rely, in Casey’s words, on ‘mediation’ through text and bodily action. They involve synchronicity of bodily involvement as we act together (Cossu, 2010: 36).
The performative element of commemorations seems at first to clash with the formality of their repetition, yet as Cossu argues, they open up new performances each time (2010: 34). This reiterates a Deleuzian understanding of repetition – it can only ever rely on difference with each repetition from the original; if x is the original and x1 is a repetition, x1 is different from x because it is a repetition. This year, the difference in repetition is especially emphasised through the inability of people to perform their synchronised actions in the same place. The wreath laying at Bergen-Belsen this year, for example, was performed with only the memorial’s staff present (as can be seen in the video below).
Despite the repetition of this performative action – the wreath laying – the event feels somewhat empty. Part of the power of commemorative events is related to the closeness of the co-mmemorators. Durkheim describes individuals coming together for such a sacred gathering as a particularly affective experience:
a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.
The sacredness of commemorative spaces distinguishes them from the banal places of everyday life and designates a discontinuity from everyday lived temporal experience. Our bodily experiences in these spaces are somewhat dictated by the orderly, regulated and formalised order of ceremony. Yet, it is not the site in itself that defines this sacredness.
For Durkheim, sacredness is not fixed to the symbolic value attributed to specific objects or sites but rather is action-centred – the sacred thus emerges through communal action and assembly. This still raises questions about our current condition:
- Can we assemble in time if not in space?
- Can we assemble across space with the use of hashtags?
#75Befreiung has been particularly powerful at drawing connections across different concentration camps, opening up commemorations of specific sites into a broader collective memory of commemoration of the concentration camp network as something bigger than each site. #VEDay2020, #Victory75 and more, can also bring people together both synchronously and asynchronously across nations through social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
In Paul Connerton’s seminal work about how societies remember, he highlights the importance of activity to commemoration further, when he claims that ‘performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution’ (2010, 59). We might think of the performative utterances we express on social media through text, image, audio-visual content and the technical codes like hashtags that unite us to others – these too can produce places (or perhaps better, spaces) in which a commemorating collective can define itself. Furthermore, through the use of these media, this collective might become accessible to individuals who had never participated in Holocaust and World War II events before. Regular users of these platforms tend to look at what is trending that week, and indeed #VEDay2020 is in today’s trending list for me (as one would expect!).
Whilst others, such as Wertsch (2002) and Saito (2010) highlight the significance of material mnemonics – objects that help us remember – to collective memory and commemoration, they neglect to think about technical objects like media. If, as Casey (1987) claims, commemorations are always acts of mediation through, in his argument, ritual and text. Then, can broadcast and post-broadcast media also be mnemonics, prompting us to memorialise the past in the same way as others, simultaneous in our actions? Hoskins (2004) has written extensively about the ‘connective turn’ of digital memory and the ways in which such networked technology enables a new ‘on-the-fly’ form of memory that is constantly emerging, or a ‘living memory’. Whilst it is possible for digital media to be used in a more traditional broadcast sense – as one might read out a set text at a commemoration or show the laying of wreaths by officials on television, it has the potential to creatively expand the ways in which we blend institutionalised and private memory.
Wulf Kansteiner (2017) has been critical, however, of the ways in which Holocaust memory institutions use the digital tending to broadcast information outwards to users rather than take advantage of its hyperconnectivity (a theme I touched on in my previous blog). Kansteiner argues this is particularly obvious in terms of gaming – thus whilst institutions resist the production of Holocaust computer games, denialists create and circulate them. We might say the same for the way deniers indulge in the sharing economy of social media spaces like reddit (/r/Holocaust) and 8chan, which have led to deadly consequences with mass shooters publishing manifestos influenced by both historic and neo-Nazis. We need to take participatory media logics seriously in institutionalised Holocaust memory.
- Perhaps the current situation, which enables us to more fluently flow between institutionalised online spaces and the private enables a blurring of two types of memory: cultural and connective?
- Perhaps this entanglement might open up Holocaust and World War II memory culture to more participatory, networked modes of commemoration in the future?
We must not assume, however, that the digital simply gives us more agency as users, as Hoskins reminds us, hyperconnectivity comes with a contradiction: as technology takes hold of the content we share, we are at risk of losing control of how it is further shared and edited – it no longer continues to be simply our personal memory (2004, 53). In some respects this is potentially liberating, but it also risks becoming entangled within online denial rhetorics.
Jan Assman (1991) argues that memory of events shifts from a communicative, lived memory into a cultural, institutionalized one, and we have clearly seen that movement with Holocaust memory.
- Nevertheless, can an engagement in on-the-fly, networked digital memory create a new form of communicative ‘living memory’?
Not in the sense, that the memory involves only testimonies of those who experienced this past first-hand, but rather as a memory taken on by those of later generations, who keep the memory metaphorically alive through a diverse continuous creating and sharing of images, testimonies and other content related to this past. A memory then that breaks free of the fixity and formalised traditions of commemorations, but nevertheless retains a coming togetherness, but one far more expansive than being fixed to a specific time and place. Rather, one that continues across times and spaces for as long as possible. I am not suggesting that we eradicate sites of historical important – but rather that we consider how we can augment commemorative events by expanding their reach and activities, and democratising their content. There seems like no better time than this 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, commemorated in the strangest of circumstances without our usual tangible mnemonics available, to think about radical potentials for continuing this memory.
Next week, we’ll be looking at the extent to which it is possible to archive the online commemorations of this year’s 75th anniversary events and what a specifically digital archive of these material might look like. For now, we’d love to hear about your experiences of participating in commemorations in 2020 for the liberation of camps, Yom HaShoah or VE Day. Share your stories in the comments below.